East Side Baha’i Center


bahaicenterOn Tuesday night, I went over across the lake to Bellevue, to sit in on a devotional service at the Baha’i Center.

Bellevue is a bit off my beaten path, and I wouldn’t come over to the east side for just any church.  But the only other Baha’i devotionals near me in Seattle happen in peoples’ homes, and I’m not comfortable going to someone’s house, especially if I’m going to write about it later.   A house is a private setting, and my blog isn’t a private thing.

So, for the Baha’i, I’ve made an exception and I trundled over the bridge to visit them.

Unfortunately, I don’t yet have enough information about their services to make a proper review.  Like the minyon I attended at Beth Shalom, this is just a prayer service, and not a full-on worship service.

In fact, they really don’t have full-on worship services.  They have events, about every 19 days or so (they have a 19 day month on their calendar), that involves a speaker.  So I’m going to go to one of those in the hopes that it’s close enough to a sermon that I can write about it and give them a score.

That will be down the road a piece, but for now, I’ll write about my visit.

I arrived at the center about ten minutes before the devotional was supposed to start.  The building is a large impressive modern space with lots of meeting rooms, a large hall, and a huge back “porch” with a barbecue area.  It looks a lot like one of Seattle’s community centers.  They have another space that’s rented out to an exercise business.

I wondered around looking lost (because I really was) and tried to figure out where the devotional was going to be held.  A man with poor English (I would later learn is an Iranian who’s been in the US for just a few years) guided me to the proper room after a rather confused exchange of words.

The room was kind of small, not much larger than your typical living room, and filled with soft, black, pleather armchairs.  The kind you’d find in a coffee shop or for sale at Pier One.  There was a low coffee table with a plant on it, a book shelf, and a large flat screen television, which looked to be about 50 inches or so, sitting on top of an entertainment center.  The room was carpeted, and under the coffee table was a nice Persian rug.  The walls were painted in earthy and mocha-y tones.

It was like the living rooms you see in catalogs, with the furniture artfully arranged and for sale.

There were also a number of square ottomans, also black and pleathery.  The kind that open up to reveal storage space in them.  One of these ottomans sprouted cables, and a computer keyboard and mouse came out.  There was a man there using the mouse and keyboard, with the PC displaying on the big television.

(Being an open source computer nerd, I would like to note here that on the PC desktop I saw icons OpenOffice, FireFox, and the open source media player VLC.  I heartily approve.)

The man was queuing up a playlist of little music videos, but lamenting the fact that the PC was going very slowly because it had just started up and insisted on downloading a bunch of updates right then and there.  I resisted the urge to evangelize about Linux, but only just barely.

Other people walked in and took up seats. I sat next to the guy fussing over the computer.

Baha’i purports to be a very open religion.  Open to all creeds, faiths, and people.  It is not surprising, then, that this group was a somewhat diverse lot.  There were three middle eastern guys, two white guys (including me), a white woman, a hispanic woman, and a black guy.   Up until now, I hadn’t seen a lot of diversity except at the mosque, which was a mix of middle eastern, African-American, African, and a few white dudes.  Every other place I’ve gone has been typical of the rather un-diverse and overwhelmingly white North Seattle.

I keep hearing that churches in Central and South Seattle are a mix of folks, but I haven’t gone down there to see for myself just yet.  Soon.

Anyway, the guy with the computer, who was our devotional leader for the night, finally got the computer under control, and we started.

Now, I have to say here, I walked into this more blindly than I usually do.  I mean, I try to be a blank slate when I go somewhere, but that’s not usually completely possible.  I knew about some of the churches already from my own upbringing, and for the others, I’ve usually heard something about them.  But for the Baha’is, I was almost completely ignorant.  The only thing I knew about them going in was that they are a universal faith, and they are of middle eastern origin.  I had no idea what was going to happen in the devotional.

The leader played a nice music video on the PC, and we all sat and either listened or watched.  I mostly watched and looked around at folks.  Most of the others had their eyes closed.  The black guy, who I’m going to call “Smiley,” sat close-eyed in a sort of lotus position with a huge rapt smile on his face.   He was really into it.

The music was a soft country-western gospel song, and it was nice.  After it was over, the leader read a prayer out of his Baha’i prayer book.  It was about praising God.  The woman next to him started reading a prayer, from her copy of the same book, that was about thanking god for being awesome.  Then it was the Hispanic woman’s turn, and she read what sounded like a Christian prayer to me, also praising God and thanking him for being so awesome.

Then it was Smiley’s turn.  His eyes were still closed, and his mouth was still smiling, and he had no prayer book.  He started to sing a song about being imperfect and thanking God for helping him get closer to being perfect.  It was really nice, he had a great voice.  Kind of like Aaron Neville, but in a lower register.  It had the same kind of fading in and out vibrato.

All of a sudden, his arms shot up in exaltation, and Smiley’s song boomed out throughout the small room.  So sudden was the change in volume that I lost a sandal in my knee-jerk fear response.  If I had been holding anything, it would have been on the floor.  The lady who had gone before him calmly put her fingers in her ears.  She was used to it.  Nobody else flinched.  Me, I was having an adrenaline rush.

Smiley’s song went on for quite a while, and when it ended, one of the three middle eastern guys started singing something in Arabic.  It was quite pretty, but I don’t know what it was about, although I did pick up a few chants of “Allahu Akbar” in there.  His prayer sounded a lot like the chants I heard at the mosque, the same sort of intonation and ululation that you hear in Muslim calls to prayer.

The next guy explained in English that his prayer was partly in Persian, and partly in Arabic, and was for Iranian Baha’is who are imprisoned in Iran.  It was also pretty, and also sung out nicely.

About this time, I began to realize something:  They were going to expect me to pray as well.  Uh oh.  I was not prepared.  Also, prayer is not really my thing.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

The last guy to go before me, the third middle eastern guy, said a prayer in English that he had on his smartphone.  I can’t really remember what it was about, because at this point, all I could think about was what I would do when it was my turn.

My turn came, and there was a long, awkward pause, and I said quietly, “I don’t have a prayer.”

The white woman thoughtfully (and quickly) pulled a set of cards out of the entertainment center and handed them to me.  I was kind of flustered, and in a hurry to get my part over, and so I just read the first one on the top card without thinking about it.

It was the prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous.  You know, “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change … ” et cetera.  I was glad I had something to contribute, but I felt a little fraudulent.  I don’t pray.  I don’t mind prayer, and this one is as good as any other prayer, I suppose, but it wasn’t something I would have picked to say aloud if I had prepared in advance.

While I pondered over this, the leader queued up another music video, and started the cycle all over again.  Great.  I was committed now, I was going to have to pray some more.  I flipped through the cards to see what was on them.  There were lots of Baha’i prayers, and lots of Christian Prayers, Jewish prayers, some quotes from the Koran.  Then I saw something promising:  A Hopi prayer followed by a Navajo prayer.  Those were okay.  And they didn’t ask God for anything nor did they offer up praise or anything like that.  I felt I could read these aloud without being a fraud.  There was also a nice poem by Maya Angelou that I liked.

So, now that I had a plan, I sat patiently and waited for my turn.  There was more praying.  More glory to God.  More asking God to bestow wisdom.  More thanking God.  More very loud and intense singing from Smiley.  More Arabic chanting.

It went around twice more, so I got to read the Hopi and the Navajo prayers, but didn’t get to Maya Angelou.

Afterwards, some of us sat around for about an hour and chewed the fat.  One of the middle eastern guys and the prayer leader and me.  We did talk a little bit about Baha’i, and when and where I could go to get something resembling a sermon, and a bit more about the philosophy and beliefs and origins of Baha’i, but mostly we just talked about stuff.   The way that you do when you’re just hanging out and talking about nothing in particular.

The middle eastern guy had brought some watermelon, and after that was finished, we closed up the center and parted ways.

I enjoyed my visit and I look forward to going back.


10 thoughts on “East Side Baha’i Center

  1. I don’t know that I would have had a clear thought at all in your situation, but sitting here reading this the first thing that came to my head was to give a prayer about being good to your fellows, yourself, your community, and some good advice.

  2. I like how they just pulled you in to the circle, even if it was a bit awkward, everyone there had something to contribute and something to add, and maybe just as important, someone else to hear them.

  3. Baha’is don’t have sermons or preachers or even pulpits – the are forbidden. Some may become enthusiastic when they’re talking, but that’s about it. You did not have to read if you did not want to, just shake your head, “no.” The 19-day event is likely the community business meeting, these are held every 19 days – there are devotions with it too.

    Baha’is also observe holy days through-out the year which will resemble the devotions except that the subject will the the historical event that is being commemorated. Some are held at odd times, because Baha’is know when their history happened.

    Baha’i worship is not liturgical nor ritualistic – there is none of either. Most events are held in homes to avoid the expense of buildings. This way more money can go to help other people, generally in less developed countries.

    Wikipedia has good info.

  4. Also as a Baha’i it’s good to read from a perspective of someone who really didn’t know what to expect. You will never, ever hear a Baha’i sermon, we don’t do that. You can go to a meeting and hear someone give a talk or participate in a discussion, but that’s all. With no priests, ministers, rabbis or imams, there are no sermons. There is no one person with the authority to tell you what to do or what you should think.

    Also, do a bit a research about what a religious “service” is. The term comes from the “order of service” in a catholic mass, when the consecrated host is passed out, prayers read, songs sung, funds collected. People use the term “service” generically, but it really means that churches has a regular process in leading a church meeting that included processionals, recessionals, hymns, Bible readings, collections, children’s time, etc. There is no such thing in the Baha’i Faith, although sometimes you will hear the word used very generically from Baha’is who were Christians and just used to that wording.

    Baha’i devotional programs can be planned down to the very word and who reads it, or can be quite improvisational as you learned. While people like to create specific programs and share them, there are no designated programs for specific days or purposes.

    Sounds like the walked into a nice, improvisational devotions. Lucky you.

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